Criteria for Success

  • Your application demonstrates to the reviewers that you are qualified, your proposed project has merit, or both.
  • It convinces the appropriate reviewers that you (including any proposed projects) are a good fit for their program’s focus and goals.
  • The content you include (skills, previous experiences, proposed methodologies) are relevant and paint a cohesive picture of you as a successful scientist, engineer, or doctor.
  • You have checked all the boxes, whether they be prerequisites (you are eligible for the program/award) or requirements (formatting, all requested components included).


Applications written for the early years of your postgraduate career are about wanting something: an education or money for research or education. Your application must convince reviewers that they should accept you or give you the award. Therefore, crafting your best application is about framing your experiences and intentions in a way that caters to an organization’s priorities and goals.


Your application will be uniquely shaped according to the organization or institute to which you are submitting it. Identify organization-specific information such as formatting guidelines, specific prompts that must be answered, and unique organizational values that, when woven into your application, will take it to the next level. This may be the most important step of any application. It doesn’t matter if you’re the most qualified applicant if you don’t convince your reviewers of it. At the end of this page you’ll find specific advice for a few common applications. Even if your application isn’t included, you can use those sections as examples as you frame your interpretation of your audience.

Your audience will also determine what type of content you include. Medical school application essays will have more personal content than the short research proposal written for NDSEG.

When preparing personal content, put your experiences in context. Why did you pursue them and how did they shape what you want to do next? For more examples dealing with personal content, see the graduate school personal statement document.

Before laying out any technical content, you must first ask yourself what level of expertise your reviewers will have. Are they in your field but distantly related to your specific area? This will determine what level of detail you have to use when describing a research experience or when describing the methodologies in your proposal. For more discussion of technical content, see the NSF research proposal document, especially the last section on hypotheses, approaches, and outcomes.

Specific Applications

Graduate School Application: Personal Statement

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP)

Apply for NSFGRFP here.

National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG)

Apply for NDSEG here.

  • Make an account and sign in to the application early. Copy down all of the questions and their word and character limits as soon as possible. The trickiest part of the NDSEG application is how spread out all of the questions are and how varied the word/character limits are. Make sure to note the word/character limits for the sections where you include resume-like items (these have short limits as well!)
  • For the most part, you won’t be able to use materials from other fellowships for this one but that’s okay because it’s way shorter! You have to be more to-the-point and use less build-up and concluding musings than in other longer essays. In NDSEG more than others, every single sentence that you include should contribute to your overall application.
  • Try to showcase as much as you can about all of your activities throughout the entire app — don’t double-dip unless you have extra room for it! Space is limited, so if you don’t have room to talk about a leadership/scientific experience in one place, try to find somewhere else in which it could fit.
  • In the essay, try to find a specific DoD-related application of your work, a DoD research interest that lines up with your research, or even a DoD group/lab/facility that currently does this kind of research. Be specific! Talk about biothreats, biosurveillance, biosecurity, soldiers, battlefield, etc… Even if it’s only one line in the essay and a tangential potential application of your work, it’s good to include it so that they can 100% justify funding you.
  • Also in the essay, don’t forget to address all of the prompts they give you. It’s easy to forget one or two since space is so limited!

Hertz Fellowship

Apply for Hertz here.

  • It’s open to any major with particular emphasis on applied science/engineering. Biologists need to be sure to play up quantitative approaches to their work and applied outcomes.
  • The process consists of a written application followed by two rounds of interviews. Throughout the process, it is most important to emphasize your own creative contribution to your past work along with what new areas on which you’re most excited to work.
  • This application is definitely much less formulaic and more content-driven than the NSF.

Medical School

AMCAS website here.

  • For your personal statement, focus on being honest rather than being unique. Between the rest of the application, secondary applications, and the interview, there will be plenty of opportunities to show all sides of you.
  • Focus on quality over quantity when explaining your reasons for wanting to become a doctor. Writing in detail about your one or two most compelling reasons often makes for a much stronger essay than if you dilute your statement with dozens of mediocre ones.
  • If you give an opinion about something controversial (in an essay or during an interview), try to be balanced. At least show that you understand the arguments for the other side, even if you don’t agree with them.
  • When getting ready for an interview, make sure to prepare several school-specific questions for the interviewer that can’t be answered with a quick Google search.
  • During interviews and campus visits, ask current medical students why they chose to matriculate at that school. This can help you to narrow down your own list of potential schools.
  • Practice the answers to these questions out loud with a friend or by yourself (just make sure that you actually say the words):
    1. Why this school?
    2. Tell me about yourself. (this is a great opportunity to be personable, so make sure to have a solid 1 to 2-minute answer)
    3. How would you contribute to the diversity of this school?
    4. When you disagree with a coworker, how do you approach the situation?
    5. Why do you want to be a doctor? (focus on being succinct, which can be tough)
  • It’s helpful to have a general awareness of the state of the health care system. Even if your interviewer doesn’t ask you about it directly, you can often make connections in your essays or answers to other interview questions.
  • Take full advantage of your “off-the-clock” time on campus visits. Ask everyone tons of questions so you can learn what types of people typically attend that school. Going straight to the source also allows you to learn about information that hasn’t been filtered through the Admissions Office.

NIH Predoctoral F31 Fellowship

Apply for the F31 here.

  • The application is deceptively long; there are a lot of documents that you need to include within the main application document. Start at least a couple of months before the deadline.
  • The Grants offices at your school and Broad’s Office of Sponsored Research should have templates for some of the documents that seem super random and obscure.
  • You need three letters of recommendation, and your Ph.D. advisor does not count towards that total.
  • When choosing which institutes at the NIH will read your application, try to select the ones that are the closest scientific fits. If you have a spot left, you should include the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which has a very broad scope.
  • Your PI is your main sponsor and they will have to fill out significant portions of the application. They’ll likely be able to copy and paste from previous grant applications, but give them plenty of time to finish.
  • In assessing your lab environment and how it will affect your potential to succeed, the NIH tends to prioritize more senior/established PIs. If your PI is new (less than ~10 years of experience), it might be helpful to have a department head, a more senior committee member, or a former rotation advisor co-sponsor your application.
  • You’ll receive your score and reviewer feedback a few months after you submit your application. You can reapply, so don’t fret if you aren’t funded the first time. The feedback you receive will (hopefully) be valuable for future grant writing and application exercises.

This content was adapted from from an article originally created by the MIT Biological Engineering Communication Lab.